Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Liberation - Concluding Part

We are the Mukherjees. We lived in a four-story mansion in north Calcutta. Generations before us have been lawyers and doctors and scientists and everyone knew about us. We commanded respect and no son or daughter of the family has done anything to go against the values that have been set aside especially for them, with two brilliant exceptions, of course.
My father is a painter. My grandfather had thrown him out of the house when he voiced his desire to become an artist by profession. Granddad tried reasoning with him in the beginning.
"Why can't you study law and paint on the side, like a hobby? Why do you have to jeopardise what we have built? Why can't you be normal?"
My father, I hear, had kept quiet because he knew that no reason would satisfy his father and left quietly when he was ordered to do so.
With the help of his friends, he found a job as a designer with an advertising agency. There were no computers in those days and artists who could swallow their pride and actually surrender to commercial work were welcomed with open arms. He did pretty well actually. In the next five years, he got in touch with twenty writers, designers, sales people and opened his own advertising agency with an account for a hair oil given to him by a friend who worked for the company. In another year's time, my father and his agency had six major clients and ten other clients who worked with them intermittently. He bought an apartment in south Calcutta and began living there.
Seven years after being thrown out of his house, his father came to him, saw what his son had achieved for himself and begged him to return. My father didn't have any issues on that but he never sold the south Calcutta flat. He knew that property wouldn't be easy to come by later.
He was married to my mother in 1970 when he was 30 and my mother was 19. My father was extremely annoyed that his parents would fix his marriage with someone young enough to be his sister, but they were persistent. My father was told that my mother was extremely good at running a home and would bring about a balance in his otherwise maddening life. I think my father had married ma pretty much reluctantly. I was born after seven years of their marriage. My father wanted my mother to finish her education (which she never did!) and not produce babies within a year of marriage.
I was a rebel child. I wore shorts and rode bicycles. I learnt how to fix the car and climb trees. I learnt how to knit, stitch, cook, paint, dance, sing, swim, play tennis, and ride horses and so on and so forth. My father didn't want another child and so he brought me up to be a boy and a girl at the same time. I was his pride factor. He named me Mrinalini, after his mother as I was supposed to have taken after her. It was my mother who called me Rashmi because she thought my formal name was too long.
I finished my graduation in English literature and continued in Linguistics at the master's level, much to my mother's horror and father's delight. Soon, my mother began to look for eligible bachelors for me and my father would discourage it all the time. I knew that if I wanted to escape the matchmaking acts then I would have to escape quickly. But till then, I was stuck. My degree was another year away. I had fallen in love for the first time when I was 15. He was my neighbour. Aditya played the flute and wrote love poems all the time. We had met during a local celebration and were together from that moment on. I would sneak out on Saturday afternoons when my mother would be asleep and go over to meet him. We would hold hands and talk about the future. It was rather silly, when I think of it now, but there was a major learning that lay underneath it all.
Aditya and I managed to get away on a Sunday (I still don't know how!) and for the first time, we had sex in a farmhouse that belonged to his family. I was eighteen. Sometimes, I wonder what my mother would do if she found out that her precious and eligible daughter was not a virgin anymore. She would probably hang herself. It's a risk I haven't taken yet.
It was after my high school that Aditya went away to Bombay for his graduation. We used to write to each other all the time. The Internet was our best friend. But it lasted only for a few months. The frequency of mails reduced and soon there wasn't much to write about either.
Both of us were busy with new friends and our new lives. College changed everything and I was swept away by all that. I also saw a few other guys casually and slowly began to grow out of my teenage romance. I think Aditya and I stopped corresponding altogether when I was in my second year of college. Later he wrote to me telling me that he was leaving for London to finish his studies in neurology. It didn't hurt me much but it was sad to say good-bye to a part of life you want to cherish forever.
Sometimes, I still wonder. When my mother talks about a 'nice' boy for me, I wonder if she would ever, by chance, of course, fix me up with Aditya. We were neighbours after all. The irony of it would be that I don't think I could accept being with him. Things were different then.

My thoughts were broken when I heard my father's car moving into the driveway. He had returned from his golf match and that meant lunch would be served soon. I looked at the watch and saw it was almost 2. Thinking sure helps time to fly. I ran down and met my father. He looked happy, must have had a good game. Lunch was served at 2:30. I noticed two of my aunts had decided not to stay for lunch.
After lunch, my father came up to me and said, "Can you come to the library after you have helped your mom to clean up?"
I wondered what my father wanted to talk to me about. I was a little scared, to be honest. It wasn't everyday that my father wanted to speak to me in private. After I had helped ma put away the dishes, I went up to the library.
My father was sitting on his favourite armchair with some papers in his hand. He heard me come in, so he looked up and said, "Sit. This is important."
"What is it, baba? Something wrong?"
I was too nervous to ask him anything specific.
"Mrinalini, you are no longer a child. I see you growing up everyday. And each day you make me proud. I don?t know if there is anything else I can expect from a son or a daughter. But there must be something that you would want to do for yourself as well. I have never asked you what you wanted because I wanted you to find it for yourself. I cannot imagine you as just someone's wife three or four years down the line. Therefore, I am going to let you go. I want you to go out into the world and make your place. You don't have to do it the way I did but I am sure you will find some way or the other. I don't want to be like my father who had to throw me out because we didn?t see eye to eye. Whatever happens, I will always see eye to eye with you."
With that my father settled all the papers he had on his lap and gave them to me. Along with that he gave me a key. Tears had welled up in my eyes. I couldn?t see what the papers read, I only wanted to hug my father tight and cry. The papers were a part of the property that he was signing over to me. And the key was to his flat that he had so preciously maintained for so long.

No more words were said. I took everything he gave me and went to my room.
Somewhere in the middle of the night I realized that it was liberation day for me. My father had given me the wings I dreamt for so long but was too afraid to ask for. I could take my first unquestioned step into the world.
I moved out two weeks later. My mother cried like a newborn baby and my father proudly drove me to my new home. He didn?t come up.
At the gate before bidding me farewell, he hugged me and told me, "I never wanted another child because when I saw you the first time, I knew that you were all I wanted."

Liberation - Part I

I heard my mother calling for me as soon as I walked into the house. I responded, sighed and went to my room to take a bath.
It was a Sunday and on Sundays our house was a lunatic asylum. It was always bustling with activity and we barely managed some breathing space. I remember seeing faces of relatives I had never heard of, visited or saw again pouring in every weekend.
My mother often would say that it was my father who attracted our relatives from all over. I never really got around appreciating it much. And the best part of it was that my father disappeared every Sunday morning to play golf before these people came and returned only for lunch.
Living in a city has its disadvantages. One grows up with liberal ideas and it is difficult to understand the mind of someone who cannot imagine that a girl can stay unmarried even at the age of 22. I rarely got involved in these kind of issues which were the usual 'hot topics of discussion' when my aunt seventeen times removed would ask my mother if she was looking for a 'nice' boy for me.
I counted five heads by the time I reached my room. Today was going to be a killer. I probably won't even have time to complete my assignments. Damn, I would have to stay up late again tonight. My bath had to be over in five minutes because I heard my younger cousin coming into the room and knocking on my bathroom door. I told her I would be out in a second, and when I came out, I saw her poking around my jewellery box. "How many times have I told you not to touch my things, Meenu? It?s really annoying, you know." "Sorry didi, I was only looking."
And with that she left me to get dressed.
One of these days, I am going to strangle the girl. And if I cannot muster enough courage, I am going to take her to the terrace and lock her there for a couple of hours. She gets on my nerves all the time.
"R... A... S... H... M... I!"
And I really wish my mom wouldn't holler like that all the time.
"Be there in a minute, ma," I yelled back; serves her right. She has always told me that girls from decent families never shouted. As soon as I went down, my mother called me into the kitchen."You need help or what?" I asked.
I had made her promise last week that she wouldn't make me cook when those annoying aunts and sisters and grand-some-things were around. She had this horrible tendency of using my culinary talents to show off.
"Please dear, just for today. I am making five different dishes. How will I ever cook lunch in time, you tell me?"
"You are making five dishes for breakfast?!? Are you out of your mind? Why can't you make something simple, ma? I just don?t understand you."
"You will understand all of this when you get married. Then you have to keep so many people happy. At that time, one course, even if it's breakfast, will not do."
"I hope you aren?t planning to get me married to the Maharajah of Jaipur." With that I sat down to help her.
"You know, Rashmi, Mrs. Sen was asking about you the other day. She was saying that her nephew who is a software engineer in the US is planning to get married. I told her that you cannot even think of it till you finish your masters, but she said that maybe you people could meet when he comes down for Christmas. What do you think?"
"I think that you better concentrate on your curry if you want to serve these people a decent meal in a decent time. And if you talk about my marriage again, especially with me, I will run away and marry some useless actor from the local city film studio."
"Dear God, what nonsense are you talking about? Your father and I will have no respect left. We will have to hide our faces in shame. What will people think? Mr. Mukherjee?s daughter married a vagabond. Tell me now, Rashmi, are you seeing any boy of that kind?"
"MOTHER... If you want my help, then do something about it. I cannot have you spoil my cooking. And I asked you to give me three onions, not two." That was the end of the conversation.
For the moment, at least.
I knew, of course, that my mother had already pictured me walking hand in hand with a ruffian and romancing near the lakes. God! When will mothers change a bit?
Breakfast was served exactly at 9:30 and went on for an hour. Aunt A had to tell my mom about Uncle C's daughter who didn't do well in her graduation exams and how Grand Uncle D was very unhappy about Aunt F's son who wanted to marry a girl outside their caste. I was, of course, thinking where I could buy some rat poison easily.
Suddenly, Meenu asks this ridiculous question. "Didi, don't you have a boyfriend? Ayesha told me she saw you with a tall boy outside New Empire the other day and you were smiling and talking to each other."
Silence. For ten whole seconds. Then I heard thunder and lightning and then it began to pour.
"Rashmi, what is this that I am hearing? When did you go to New Empire? And who is this boy? Oh my god! What has become of my daughter? Will she never learn? I teach her all this. Give her a good education, let her go out alone, even allow her to wear western clothes. And this is what she does to me?"
Five gallons of tears poured out incessantly.
"When did Ayesha see me, Meenu? Ask her and come back. I never miss classes. So it is almost impossible for me to be standing in front of New Empire. And I don?t have any 'boy friend', Meenu. I am too old to engage myself in such trivialities. And mother, if you cry anymore without knowing the truth, I will have no choice but to stop speaking to you. So please don't force me."
That did shut my mother up. For whatever be her disappointments with me, she knew that I didn't take my education lightly and wouldn't even dream of wasting my time when I had classes to attend. I also kept myself busy with various activities and haven't been involved in romance per se in a long time. What happened before is a different story altogether.

For Adrianne

Dear girl, you have smiled at me for no reason.
And I have smiled back, reading your mind.
You held my large working hands and
Clasped them with your tiny digits,
Giving me faith, hope and courage with each passing day.

With every bit of heartbreak followed an embrace
Acceptance without an explanation.
You let me cry without asking questions
Yet you didn't let my heart bleed dry.

I am not amongst the stars as you were told
Those fairy tales are not for you.
I am everywhere, inside, outside, over and above
The grey skies; watching you, holding you
Showing you a life that will not let you give up.

Unavoidable Circumstances

There is no escape, he whispered.
He crawled out of the bed and trudged to the bathroom. It's going to be a long day today and an even longer night.
She hadn't taken his call. He hadn't wondered why.
It's more like a routine anyway.
Drenched in sweat, sprawled across the bed, she would probably be watching her partner from last night break out of sleep. And she would be wondering if he is the one.
It's the same story from which there is no escape.
He bathed and dressed like every day. Like everyday he took his car out and checked for petrol. And like everyday, he grumbled about the traffic as he drove to work. And like every day, he idled away his time thinking of her.
He imagined her before him, under him, above him.
He thought of the only time she came close to kissing him; the only time he was allowed to touch her.
He thought of the only time his brain exploded when he left her place for the last time.
And like everyday, she lay alone on the bed, staring at the ceiling and wondering if it was the right shade of white. And like every other day, tears were rolling down her face as the man she just had sex with forgot to kiss her goodbye. And her heart broke like fragile china as she knew she would never see him again.
And like everyday, she got up, cleaned up and drowned herself in work.
Memories from a distant past were erased. At least, for the time being.
Two faces. Two names. Same city.
A cringing pain. An unsolicited failure.
A relationship ending because it had no time to begin.
A pathetic illusion from which there is no light.
A song which has no tune or verse.
A life from which there is no escape.

Learning to be domesticated

I have been waiting for a while now
Giving you looks thats not hard to understand,
Wanted to make love while the morning was young
And then the phone rang;
Your mother had dozens of things to say
Some stranger wanted a wrong address
In the meanwhile, the milkman came
With bills i dont really care about.
The rent is due sometime today
The cable guy needs to be paid
My cook needs instructions for breakfast
How does one steal a moment here?
A lot of paperwork to be done
Calls that need to be returned
Its funny when this side of the bargain
Is invisible when you decide for life.